On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Nigeria’s Experimental Steps Toward an Amnesty for Boko Haram

The Nigerian government, amid a military crackdown against the Boko Haram sect in the country’s northeast, is experimenting with measures that may lead to an amnesty for the group. These experiments seem like an effort to build good will with the group in hopes of striking a more comprehensive deal later. We’ll see what fruit they bear.

Nigeria’s Guardian:

The military Joint Task Force (JTF) in Yobe State on [June 13] released Hassana Yakubu, one of the wives of the wanted Boko Haram sect leader, Shiekh [sic] Abubakar Shekau.

[...]

Hassana was released along with seven other wives of top commanders of the Boko Haram sect. Fifteen of their children, aged between five and eight, were also released.

In the PCDR member’s words: “Hassana was released last week alongside Malama Zara, wife of slain leader of the group, Mohammed Yusuf, and seven other wives of top commanders of the Boko Haram sect who have been in detention for 10 months.”

[...]

The women were told to reintegrate themselves into the society and also take part in the peace process initiated by the Federal Government with active support of both the Borno and Yobe state governments.

The commissioner added that the eight women were also immediately enrolled into the skill- acquisition programme of the state government; while the state Ministry of Women Affairs gave them five sets of wrappers and 10 yards of brocade for each of the children.

Besides, he added, the sum of N100, 000 was also approved for each of them.

This move followed earlier releases of women and children allegedly affiliated with the sect.

The Nigerian Tribune:

The Federal Government has said it will soon commence the process of disarmament and de-radicalisation of repentant Boko Haram members as well as ensuring that they are well rehabilitated.

[...]

Speaking in his office in Abuja, on Friday, the Chairman, Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North and Minister of Special Duties and Inter-Governmental Affairs, Alhaji Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, stated that it was only a matter of time for total peace to be restored in the region.

[...]

He recalled that the committee, last Thursday, had a dialogue with 104 Boko Haram suspects detained in Lagos prisons and expressed confidence that the initiative would achieve the desired goal.

Background here.

Niger Has Received at Least Four Streams of Refugees Since 2011

Yesterday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that some 6,000 refugees have arrived to Niger from Nigeria, fleeing the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram. Reuters provides additional context.

Refugees from Nigeria add to existing and recent refugee influxes into Niger. I can count four major streams since 2011:

  1. Refugees from the 2011 post-electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.
  2. Refugees from the Libyan civil war of 2011. In May 2011 AFP put the combined total of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and Libya at 93,000. Some 60,000 of these were probably from Libya – more here. The final total from Libya, given that the war lasted for months after May, was undoubtedly higher. It is difficult to know how many of these refugees have been successfully resettled, but I would imagine many of them continue to live in precarious conditions.
  3. Refugees from the 2012-2013 crisis in Mali, whom UNHCR counts at 50,000-60,000.
  4. Refugees from northeastern Nigeria.

Throughout the crisis in Niger’s neighbor Mali, it has often been tempting – including for me – to examine Niger’s “success.” More accurate than calling Mali a failure and Niger a success would be to say that Niger faces its own problems and vulnerabilities, including refugee streams from multiple other countries in the region, and limited resources to give those people.

Media and Nigeria’s 2015 Elections

Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, at a recent event:

INEC Chairman Prof. Attahiru Jega, in Abuja on Monday attributed the success of the 2011 general elections to the commitment of the Nigerian media.

[...]

The chairman said that voter education had become imperative as the nation approached the 2015 general elections, noting that there was need to deepen democracy through credible elections.

Jega said that INEC also benefited from inputs by all stakeholders which resulted in substantive achievements.

He said that the commission was determined to ensure that the 2015 elections were more remarkable than those of 2011.

“The success of credible elections is not the responsibility of INEC alone, but the joint responsibility of all enlightened citizens in the electoral process,’’ he said.

Prof. Jega made somewhat similar remarks approximately one year ago:

Speaking at the opening ceremony of a two-day confer­ence on ‘New Media and Gov­ernance: Tools and Trends’ held at the Shehu Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja, he said in­ternet platform “provided a vehicle for the unprecedented mobilisation of the emergent generation of youths in the political process.”

The INEC boss said this was “crucial because youths between the ages 18 and 35 constituted 62.4 percent of the 73.5 million people registered by INEC during the voter reg­istration exercise conducted early in 2011. There is no doubt that the level of interest shown by the younger gen­eration in the 2011 elections was never before witnessed in Nigeria’s political history. But I believe that the most gratifying dimension of this development is the patriotic zeal demonstrated by corps of young technophiles who volunteer to man our new me­dia platforms every time we open the Situation Room for election. They did that during the 2011 general elections and they have done so for all the state governorship elections we have conducted this year.”

Jega said there was no doubt that new media tools have added value to Nigeria’s electoral process, noting that new media has the potential to deepen Nigeria’s democracy.

Nigeria’s 2011 elections have been called the “best run, but the most violent.” (For more on these issues, readers may be interested in reports from International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.)

What role will different media play in 2015? There have been high hopes that media can enhance transparency and accountability, for example by allowing civil society groups to rapidly share – with the entire world – photographs and reports from polling places. Can media help reduce violence in 2015 by promoting accountability – or are social media activists themselves potential targets of violence? Or both?

Trajectories of Islam in Mali

I’ve written an article (.pdf) for the summer 2013 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. The piece is entitled, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali’?” I analyze trends in Malian Muslim leaders’ public religiosity and political participation. An excerpt from pp. 46-47:

Islamist rule at gunpoint seems unlikely to return in the short-term. The end of armed Islamist control, however, does not mean that Islam will recede as a political force in Mali. The public roles—plural—of Islam in Mali have expanded and diversified from the time of the French colonial conquest to the present. This expansion has been especially pronounced since 1991, when a military coup set the stage for two decades of multiparty elections and political liberalization. While Islamists hold few elected offices, liberalization facilitated the expression of diverse Muslim identities in Mali. Mass movements and mass media are two powerful channels through which Muslim activists shape values, influence politics, and contest the meaning of Islam. The 2012-2013 crisis occurred in the midst of this ongoing reevaluation of the role of Islam in public life in Mali. The crisis further expanded opportunities for Muslim leaders to expand their participation in politics and intensified debates over what it means to be Malian and Muslim.

Post-war Mali will likely not be an “Islamic state” in the sense of a state where micro-policies are explicitly based on specific references to Islamic scriptures and traditions. But Islam already has a greater public role in Mali than before the war began. As Mali emerges from conflict and re-imagines its political system, Malian politicians and outside partners hoping to restore an idealized “status quo ante,” in which Islam supposedly played no public role in a democratic and “secular” country, may have to acknowledge the increasingly powerful influences Muslim activists and movements wield in Malian society and politics.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

Niger and Libya on the Recent Bombings

(Somehow I goofed and didn’t post this on May 28th, the day I wrote it. It’s still relevant, so I thought I would post it today. – Alex)

Following the May 23 bombings in northern Niger, the country’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, charged that the attackers had come from southern Libya. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan denied this claim.

I do not know who is right. But Issoufou and Zeidan’s statements interest me in large part because of the views they reflect on what post-Qaddhafi Libya has become.

Issoufou:

Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel…I had already warned from the beginning of the Libyan crisis…that it was necessary to avoid solutions after Kadhafi’s defeat that would be even worse, and I had said that if the Libyan state turned into a Somalia or fell into the hands of fundamentalists, the solution would be worse…Today the situation is very difficult, the Libyan authorities are doing their best to control it, but the fact is, Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel.

It’s noteworthy that Issoufou frames the problem as a regional one and not just as an issue for Libya and Niger.

Zeidan:

It was Gaddafi who exported terrorism…The new Libya will not tolerate that.

Issoufou depicts the bombings as the work of foreigners, Zeidan depicts Libya’s problems as being the fault of Qaddhafi.

Libya and Niger have had some tension since Qaddhafi’s fall. Niger was relatively slow to recognize the new Libyan government, and the two countries have not reached an agreement on the extradition of Qaddhafi family members and lieutenants from Niger back to Libya (Zeidan raised this issue again at his press conference). Issoufou calling Libya a “source of destabilization” is strong language, and suggests that he (and possibly other Sahelian leaders) are deeply unhappy with their northern neighbor’s trajectory. Issoufou’s concerns about Libya, in other words, go well beyond the latest bombing.

Africa Blog Roundup: Susan Rice, Mali, Darfur, Kenyan IDPs, and More

Africa in DC: “What Does Susan Rice’s Appointment as National Security Adviser Mean for Africa?”

Bruce Whitehouse:

As French troops hunted Islamist fighters in northern Mali this past winter, historian Greg Mann said that what was taking place in the region was not one war, but several. For a few months starting in January 2013, the various armed conflicts that had broken out over the previous year appeared to converge, as did French and Malian interests. But, as Gregreminded us in March, the French government’s war was not the Malian government’s war. And now it seems that Mali’s war — after a long hiatus — is starting up again, and breaking away from France’s war.

For weeks there have been rumblings of an impending resumption of armed conflict between Malian government forces and the MNLA separatist rebel group that controls the northern region of Kidal. Rumors of Malian troop movements north of Gao have been circulating since February. But this week these were joined by an army statement that government forces had massed midway between Gao and the rebel-occupied town, and by news today that Malian troops took the village of Anafi, 100 km southwest of Kidal. Areport on Malijet claims that Malian soldiers are within 35 km of the town, and that MNLA forces are retreating toward Algeria; a similar report has appeared on Reuters.

Amb. John Campbell: “Racism in Mali and the Upcoming Elections.”

Aly Verjee:

The second honeymoon of Darfur’s Doha peace process lasted just over a month. On April 6, Mohammad Bashar, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement-Sudan (hence referred to as JEM-Bashar) signed the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD; English, Arabic) in the ballroom of the Doha Ritz-Carlton hotel.
In Doha, Bashar told delegates he was looking forward to going home. On May 12 he was dead, killed on the Sudan-Chad borderlands at the hands of his former comrades in the mainstream Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Internally Displaced: “Kenya and South Sudan – The Border Question Resurfaces?”

Africa UP Close: “Youth Farming and Aquaculture Initiatives Aim to Reduce Food and Political Insecurity in Senegal.”

Prisca Kamungi: “Municipal Authorities and IDPs Outside of Camps: The Case of Kenya’s ‘Integrated Displaced Persons’.”

What are you reading?